Staying Fit on a Real-Life Vacation

On a vacation to the mountains near Phoenix-Scottsdale, fitness expert Elise Oberliesen finds what works to burn calories while you’re having a great time

Do you remember those New Year’s resolutions? You know: The ones you made about how you would exercise more and eat healthier foods with lower fat content? If you’ve slipped, it’s not the end of the world. Your next vacation can actually be a chance to renew your health commitment.

Most fitness experts agree that fitting fitness into a vacation makes a big difference once you’re home and about to face the scale. The smart strategy is to plan exercise time into each day and to opt for active excursions with an ample calorie burn.

Sunrise yoga sessions, pedaling a bicycle, horseback riding and hiking top the list when you're trying to combine an active vacation with some relaxation and downtime—and those activities were exactly what the doctor ordered on my recent trip to Arizona.

In a class at Usery Mountain Regional Park in the town of Mesa, yoga instructor Misty Camteau led the class through all the usual yoga poses, but with one unusual difference: Floor-to-ceiling windows gave this studio a view of the Sonoran Desert. Amid sun salutations and down dogs, the yogis feasted their eyes on miles of lush saguaro cactus and hummingbirds stocking up on nectar.

Yoga paired with physical activities provides a well-rounded, mind-body balance during any vacation, Camteau says. "Use the relaxation of yoga to keep your mind healthy and [use more physical] activities to keep your body healthy."

(Courtesy Koli Equestrian Center)

Want a vacation activity that packs in sightseeing and some excitement along with a calorie-burning punch? Consider saddling up. Atop a steed from the Koli Equestrian Center in Chandler, Ariz., there’s a chance you might ride up on the wild horses that live on the Gila River Tribal Lands. General horseback riding burns about 300 calories per hour for the average person according to a caloric calculator from Self magazine. Ride at a full gallop and you could be burning about 560 calories an hour, per the equine experts at

But while a gallop is sure to ramp up the calorie burn, always check with your guide first, advises Roger Pablo, a Pima Native American Tribe member who serves as the lead wrangler for the Koli Equestrian Center in Chandler, Ariz. While some trail rides offer an adrenaline-pumping experience, other trail rides strictly prohibit running horses full-throttle.

Hikers on a trail near Phoenix (Courtesy Arizona Outback Adventures)

Along with yoga and a horseback ride, to continue my theme of staying fit while on this Arizona vacation, I set out for a hike in the nearby Superstition Mountains. The key to a good hike while on vacation is to make sure you know where you’re going and that you have the right gear for the environment, says Denny Brua, a trip leader with Arizona Outback Adventures. Brua has seen it all, including the mistake of trying to use flip-flops for a desert hike. Wearing the wrong shoes is one of the most common mistakes he sees (along with forgetting water and not wearing sunscreen). He makes a great point; while hiking the Boulder Canyon Trail near Phoenix, the mild elevation gain of about 500 feet kept my heart pumping, but the unpredictable shifting rocks had me wishing I laced up hiking boots instead of running shoes.

In the end, it turns out that a vacation hike is great exercise—even better than a steady ride on Ole Red. Just one hour of hiking burns about 438 calories for the average 160-pound person, according to the Mayo Clinic. The math is simple: Spend a couple hours enjoying fresh air out there in the brush, and you could splurge a little at the restaurant (or during happy hour) without the guilt of excess calories following you home on your trip.

The Where list: Resources for fit vacations in Phoenix-Scottsdale

Arizona Outback Adventures (Guided adventures of all varieties—hiking, kayaking, rafting and mountain and road biking), 480.945.2881, 16447 N. 91st Street, Suite 101, Scottsdale, AZ 85260

Hotel Palomar (In-town luxury hotel with free bike rentals for guests, access to a local gym for fitness classes), 602.253.6633, 2 East Jefferson Street Phoenix, AZ 85004

Koli Equestrian Center (Guided horseback trail rides on the Gila River Indian Reservation), 602.796.3495, 5594 Wild Horse Pass Blvd, Chandler, AZ 85226

Usery Mountain Regional Park (Hiking and more at this natural area located close to the Phoenix-Scottsdale metro area), 480.984.0032, 3939 N. Usery Pass Road, Mesa, AZ 85207

A view from Arizona's Peralta Trail (Courtesy Arizona Outback Adventures)

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